Lions poised to take charge

    2016-04-07 20:10

    Gavin Rich,

    Johannesburg - There are several reasons why their massive derby showdown with the Lions is crucial for the Sharks, but one of the most important is where victory will leave their Johannesburg visitors after just six matches of the Vodacom Super Rugby season.

    The Lions would have started their campaign as the favourites to win the conference that also includes the Sharks and the Jaguares by virtue of their relatively easier schedule. They only had to play two matches on their New Zealand tour, which they have now completed with one good win recorded, whereas the Sharks face three on the trip that starts the day after the derby.

    Their narrow defeat at the hands of the Crusaders last week may have squared things up just a bit because it means the Sharks’ solitary home defeat the week before against the same opponents has now been balanced out. But unless you’re a Sharks supporter who doubles as an eternal optimist, it is hard to see how what the Lions face from here, meaning mainly games on South African soil (their trip to Argentina is the only exception), can be equated with what the Sharks now look forward to.

    The Blues, Highlanders and Chiefs lie in wait for them on New Zealand soil and then it’s back to Durban for just one match against last year’s beaten finalists, the Hurricanes, before they head to Argentina to play the Jaguares. The Sharks beat the Jaguares narrowly at Kings Park early in the competition and the Jaguares have been underwhelming thus far, but the counter to that is that they should come right later in the competition.

    The Blues may be beatable but the Chiefs aren’t any longer in the transition phase they were in when they lost to the Lions, and while the injuries are mounting up for the Highlanders, they still look championship material. It’s pointless denying it – the Sharks are in for a tough time and they are going to have to dig deep if they still want to be in touch with the Lions when they return from their travels.

    Defeat on Saturday will mean the Lions go past them on the log before they’ve even left the country. If that happens, you’d have to say that the Lions are in the pound seats in the conference, and the Sharks might as well start thinking of a third place wild card finish on the overall African log, meaning they must just make sure they stay ahead of the Bulls, as their only route into the play-offs.

    Not that you should completely rule out the possibility of the Stormers still being in that battle for the wild card entry, as the injuries that have mounted over the past week should be of some concern to the Cape team. They should deal with the Sunwolves at Newlands on Friday without breaking too much sweat, but the Bulls should do the same against the Southern Kings the next day. The following week the Bulls host the Reds while the Stormers face the difficult task of travelling to Johannesburg to face the Lions.

    So it’s an important weekend for everyone, not just the Lions and Sharks, but the Lions should feel that victory in their next two matches should see them well clear of the challengers in their group.

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